- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Jim Mora and Noel Mazzone like to talk about Brett Hundley and all of his "firsts" as UCLA's starting quarterback; the first time he led his team back from an early deficit; the first time he orchestrated a game-winning drive; the first time he bounced back after throwing a bone-headed interception.
In a season of firsts, Hundley is about to experience a few more.
First in the Pac-12 against the run; first in the Pac-12 in total defense; first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense; first in the nation in tackles for a loss. Those firsts belong to Stanford's defense. The Cardinal are only second nationally in sacks and rushing defense, so I guess Hundley catches a break there.
"And that's after playing Oregon," UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said -- while probably shaking his head and rolling his eyes on the other end of the phone. "That puts a lot of pressure on him because they are great against the run and that's going to put pressure on him to make plays.
"As far as a group -- as seven guys -- it's the toughest we've seen. We've played some good fronts. But when Stanford brings in other guys, you don't notice. It seems like they just keep bringing guys in. As a group, it's his biggest challenge of the year."
No doubt Hundley and the Bruins' offense will be tested by a Stanford unit that last week did what no other team in the country had been able to do in 2012: stop the Oregon offense. And as a result, the Cardinal find themselves in position to lock up the Pac-12 North Division on Saturday in Pasadena, Calif., and force a rematch with the Bruins six days later in the conference title game.
"Wow," UCLA coach Jim Mora said when asked about Stanford's defense. He followed it with a long, nervous laugh. "They are very physical. They play with tremendous technique. They play with their shoulders square. They are excellent at disengaging. And then I think probably the most impressive thing is the way they pursue the football. They really play hard."
You'd think he was talking about the '85 Chicago Bears. Well, Mazzone actually made that comparison, too. But UCLA isn't exactly a pushover on offense.
The Bruins, winners of five straight for the first time since 2005, are playing some of the best football in the conference. In his past four games, Hundley is completing 76 percent of his throws for 1,057 yards with 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
"I think he is getting better at hanging in there, keeping his eyes downfield versus the rush and reading through his progressions," Mora said. "I think he's also, in conjunction with that, he's also more comfortable in knowing when to run and knowing where his escape routes may be. I've always felt like he was poised -- although he's improving in all areas as he gets more experience -- I felt like he improved with timing and accuracy. He's continued to do that. But the thing I see the most is his pocket awareness."
Even though the Bruins have already locked up the South Division, there are still implications to this game. Should UCLA win and Oregon State beats the Ducks in the Civil War, the Bruins would host the conference title game with a shot at the Rose Bowl on the line. A UCLA loss means they are in Palo Alto next week in a rematch. A UCLA win coupled with an Oregon victory means they are in Eugene, Ore., for the conference championship.
And despite his team's potent defense, Stanford head coach David Shaw has his concerns about what Hundley can do.
"You see a guy in high school and you always wonder whether he'll be able to do in college what he does in high school," Shaw said. "He's one of those guys that you see in high school -- you say, 'Yeah,' he's going to be able to do it. He's big, he's strong, he's athletic. He's got a nice release. He throws an accurate ball. He gets out of trouble. He's a very, very good football player."
And for perspective on the maturity of the freshman quarterback, check with his tight end, Joseph Fauria.
"Is he a freshman? I forgot," Fauria said tongue-in-cheek following Saturday's win over USC that locked up the South Division for the Bruins. "He seems like he's 28 years old out there the way he owns the huddle. The way he owns the backfield. The look in his eyes. The drive. The leadership. The qualities that an elite quarterback has, he has. It's awesome to be playing with him and catching the rock from him."